Elsewhere in the first few episodes, Marco is thrown over to a blind kung-fu master, Hundred Eyes, where he begins to not only show promise in the dojo, but in the court as well. His silver tongue begins to win over Kublai, with Marco eventually becoming a trusted adviser to the Khan in the Mongol’s attempt to put the Chinese Song Dynasty to an end once and for all.
Marco runs into a variety of characters during his adventures in the Khan’s court, but only a select few truly pop. Perhaps most notable is Joan Chen’s Emperess Chabi, Kublai’s own Lady Macbeth. She’s not given nearly enough cool things to do, but drops wisdom on Kublai left and right – “The concubine was a tool. Like the sword she has no say into whose body she is thrust” – and makes for a deliciously cunning presence, especially when a middle-season plot against her comes to light.
And it’s that middle-season half-way point that sort of kicks the show into gear. Following a failed assassination attempt on the Khan, Marco is entrusted to journey to the home of the Hashshashin, where he gets drugged (Hash/Assassin, get it?), encounters a delightfully trippy kaleidoscopic sex dream, and discovers a few pieces of intelligence on the way. There’s a big set-piece during a festival of the White Moon, a spy mission for Marco and Hundred Eyes to infilitrate Xiangyang, and all-out war in the episodes that follow.
Characters become more interesting as the series moves forward, especially the evil chancellor Sidao, who Chin Han makes a praying-mantis obsessing, child’s feet-breaking maniac by season’s end. Same goes for the likes of the Khan himself, especially when a last-minute twist has him questioning all Marco has done for him since his arrival. I’m not entirely sure if it was manufactured this way or not, but I went into the series expecting Kublai to be the ultimate evil, and his transition into what is essentially the show’s second protagonist was satisfying to watch.
Though far too sparsely laid out, the show’s fight sequences are quite thrilling. They’re the kind of impossible-to-navigate choreography you expect from a series like this, but enthral nonetheless. The period setting ensures no supernatural elements are ever even hinted at over the show’s ten episodes, but encounters like the one between the blind Hundred Eyes and Jia Sidao in the season’s final battle – a brutal, flinch-inducing mixture of swordplay and mythical finger-maneuvers – bring Marco Polo to an enjoyably wishy-washy middle-ground between gritty realism and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-level physics.